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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mercury Amalgram Debate

Air Date: Week of

Most people get mercury amalgam fillings when they get cavities filled by their dentist. The American Dental Association says mercury amalgam fillings are safe, but some folks, worried that the mercury may be affecting their health, are having them removed. Brenda Tremblay, of member station WXXI in Rochester, New York reports.


CURWOOD: When you walk out of your dentist's office after having a cavity filled, chances are you're carrying around a small amount of mercury in your mouth. Mercury is what gives those fillings that silver tint, and makes it easier for the dentist to fill every little nook and cranny. Not every dentist will tell you about the mercury they put in your mouth, or about an ongoing debate among dentists, patients, and the American Dental Association about the possible health hazards of mercury amalgam fillings. From member station WXXI in Rochester, New York, Brenda Tremblay prepared our report.

(Happy music up and under)

TREMBLAY: Do you remember the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland? He was the manic, shaky little guy who wore an enormous hat, rattled his watch, and asked silly questions.

MAD HATTER: How is a raven like a writing desk?

(Mad Hatter music continues)

TREMBLAY: The Mad Hatter was mad. Scholars say he was based on real people who made hats in Victorian England. Back then, hat makers took felt and dipped it into vats of mercury solution to shape the material. Inhaling the mercury vapor drove many of them insane.

(Mad Hatter music continues)

MAD HATTER: Something, a thing to be troubling you. Won't you tell us all about it?

TREMBLAY: People don't inhale mercury making hats any more, but almost all of us are exposed to toxic mercury vapors in a very common way.

(Ambient voices)

TREMBLAY: It's a late afternoon at the dentist's office. Doreen Watson leans back in a chair and watches through her bifocals as Dr. Gerard Gizzi clips a small paper bib around her neck. The veins in her thin hands stand out as she clutches the arms of the chair.

GIZZI: Okay, Doreen. Now, we're going to begin the removal.

(Objects are moved around; hissing; clinking instruments)

TREMBLAY: Dr. Gizzi takes his forceps and begins to pull the silver fillings out of her teeth. One by one.

GIZZI: Okay, Doreen?

TREMBLAY: Doreen's husband Larry watches from the corner of the room, clasping and unclasping his hands.

L. WATSON: She had Alzheimer's, and they have found through different research that it's involved with this mercury that's in the fillings. When Dr. Gizzi took those fillings out, he showed them to me, and they were all just porous like sandstone, where the mercury had leached out.

TREMBLAY: Larry hopes taking the mercury amalgam fillings out of his wife's teeth will make her better. The couple drove about a hundred miles to visit Dr. Gizzi. That's because he is one of only a few dentists in upstate New York who remove fillings for health reasons.

GIZZI: Many of the patients have either a Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or they may have Alzheimer's, beginning Alzheimer's, dementia, fibromyalgia, multiple chemical sensitivities. These are the people that are seeking to have the amalgam removed.

TREMBLAY: Dr. Gizzi sees a dozen patients a day who think the mercury in their teeth is making them sick. And research suggests this idea isn't so far-fetched. Dentists once believed that if they filled a tooth with amalgam, the mercury in the amalgam would harden and become inert. Now they know that's not true.

CLARKSON: Mercury vapor is released from the amalgam. The amount of mercury vapor released is our major source of exposure to mercury vapor in the general population.

TREMBLAY: Tom Clarkson is a scientist in the Department of Environmental Medicine at the University of Rochester in New York. He's been studying the health effects of mercury for more than 40 years.

CLARKSON: What we're concerned about is the vapor that comes off the amalgam as you are chewing, as you breathe through your mouth, and that's absorbed into the lung. And from there it gets into the rest of the body.

TREMBLAY: In large doses, mercury vapor can cause brain damage, kidney malfunction, memory loss, depression, and the kind of tremors that wracked the Mad Hatter. But Dr. Clarkson isn't sure what low-level exposure can do to people. That's why he's conducting a new study to measure the subtle effects of mercury vapor on brain development.

CLARKSON: The study involves children who have amalgam fillings in them, and another group that do not. And these children will be given very careful, very sophisticated developmental tests, performance tests, psychological tests, with the state of the art testing methods today, to see if we can see any difference whatsoever between those children that have amalgams and those that do not.

TREMBLAY: The American Dental Association insists the low levels of mercury people inhale off their fillings are perfectly safe. Dr. Terry Donovan chairs the Department of Restorative Dentistry at the University of Southern California and speaks for the ADA.

DONOVAN: If you accept the fact the dose makes the poison, the amount of mercury vapor coming off amalgam is so small it's not even of any consequence.

TREMBLAY: And, Dr. Donovan says, mercury amalgam has advantages. It bonds well with other metals. It's durable. And it's cheap, about $40 less per filling than non-mercury amalgam alternatives. Dr. Donovan says most dentists don't hesitate to fill their own children's teeth with mercury amalgam fillings. And he gets angry when he hears about people who have their fillings removed because they think the mercury is making them sick. He calls dentists who confirm those fears "quacks."

DONOVAN: I have no problem with the dentist that decides he or she doesn't want to use amalgam. That's their choice to do that or not to do that. But to tell people that they are having health problems related to silver fillings when there is not a shred of scientific evidence to support it is wrong.

TREMBLAY: But for some people, the anecdotal evidence is compelling enough.

GIZZI: Lingual recheck, please. That's a big piece in here, still. (Turns suction on.)


GIZZI: I know. (Suction continues)

TREMBLAY: Larry Watson has brought his wife Doreen to Dr. Gizzi again. During the last visit, he took out all of her fillings.

L. WATSON: But he found four spots that are black where that stuff is still in there. It's supposed to come out today.

TREMBLAY: It's been four months since Doreen had her fillings removed, and her husband Larry says her Alzheimer's symptoms have started to fade.

L. WATSON: She lost control of her bowel, and that is where they get pretty far down. Now she takes care of herself that way, and she takes her own oral medications that she needs to take. And she's beginning to joke like she used to.

TREMBLAY: There is no hard evidence to back up claims that removing mercury amalgam fillings will reverse the course of any disease. In fact, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society warns MS sufferers not to bother getting their fillings removed. They say it just won't help. And a Colorado dentist who convinced thousands of sick people to have their amalgams removed lost his license when his still-sick patients accused him of fraud. There are 53 dental schools in the U.S. All of them teach the use of mercury amalgam. But some dentists say it's only a matter of time before scientists discover a reason to ban it. That may happen in three years, when Dr. Tom Clarkson finishes his study on the low-level effects of mercury vapor on development.

CLARKSON: I'm in the middle of this investigation, and if I believed that there would be no effect, I probably wouldn't have participated. If I was darn sure that mercury vapor was dangerous, I wouldn't have participated, either. So this is really a question in our minds.

TREMBLAY: For Living on Earth, I'm Brenda Tremblay in Rochester, New York.



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